I was recently invited by the Singapore Book Council to be a speaker in a webinar as part of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. The subject of the discussion was Children’s Books in the Time of Crisis and Change and the two other speakers (Dr Junko Yokota, Emeritus Professor at the National Louis University, Chicago, and Bijal Vachharajani, Senior Editor, Pratham Books, Bangalore) and I were asked to discuss how children’s writers, illustrators and publishers have navigated pivotal moments in history, and how they continue to do so.
If I’m honest, before I sat down to write my talk – from the point of view of the British tradition of children’s publishing – I’d never really given this subject a great deal of thought. I write and publish books based on my judgement of what I think people will like – and what I think will sell – and I don’t think I consciously respond to major global events. And anyway, as a friend I was discussing it with said, aren’t British children’s books mainly ‘just about messing about in boats with picnic baskets’?
As I started to look through my childhood books, I realised that I was of course quite wrong. They may not always do it overtly or head on, but it soon became clear that, with the lightest of touches, our children’s books work extremely hard to address crisis, and to help children both prepare for and navigate the worst of times.
Reflecting on my own reading from the 1970s – a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity in the UK – I chose six stories that grew with me from, probably, aged four to twelve.
The first was Cinderella, retold by Shirley Hughes. Like most traditional stories and fairytales, this is the story of a plucky youngster facing challenges – in this case, a very nasty stepmother. When death in childbirth was a very real hazard, many children found themselves being raised by uncaring or even malign stepmothers, a disaster that was, potentially, as deep and threatening to a child’s survival and happiness as any war. On the face of it a romance about poor time-keeping and ill-fitting shoes, Cinderella’s central strategies for rescuing herself from a life of slavery are to firstly find a sympathetic adult friend/godmother and, secondly, a rich husband – seriously helpful life hacks for an eighteenth century girl, it turns out.
Social injustice lies at the heart of the Robin Hood story: it warns of bad men who abuse their power – how to identify, avoid and (at least attempt to) defeat. Useful stuff, and sadly as relevant today as it was then.
Nothing is more reassuring and gentle than Winnie the Pooh. But it was published in 1926, so just after the First World War. I think it’s no coincidence that this is so very comforting and microcosmic in its scope. It’s about appreciating nature and small joys, and celebrating each other’s differences. It’s exactly what we needed right then, after the world had seen so many horrors – the chance to reset values and heal.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books books were published in 1942 so slap bang in the middle of World War Two. As far as I remember the whole business of war is entirely ignored, but the Famous Five are navigating mine shafts and smugglers, all as part of a small team of very different personalities – they are learning about teamwork, tenacity and courage.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably the most overtly moralising of all these titles. Dahl gets away with it because it’s all so outrageous and his storytelling is so wonderful, but he’s clearly warning children about the pitfalls of twentieth century life in his vile characters of Violet Beauregard, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and Mike Teevee who are in turn spoiled, greedy, addicted to chewing gum, and obsessed with telly. Doled out with a hefty portion of sugar, this is a medicine that every child hears, even if they do choose to ignore it!
Black Beauty is a heart-warming adventure but, told from the point of view of a horse, it’s also about not having a voice or control over one’s destiny. Ultimately it’s a story with a message of endurance.
Generations of parents have continued to feed stories to their children to warn, protect, teach, and prepare children for the outside world, for life as an independent adult. And through fun, adventure and entertainment, the lessons are slowly absorbed in a way that they never could be via either a textbook or a parental lecture. But as a parent myself now, I’m suspect that we are leaning on books more than ever for another reason, and that is to inspire children and give them hope. We’re living through especially uncertain, turbulent times and without a sense of joy, excitement and wonder about the world, without magic, and love, and laughter, the future will seem pretty daunting to our kids.
Interestingly all three speakers in the webinar came to much the same conclusion. For although the titles we each referenced were quite different, we recognised that artfully and ingeniously, like the literary equivalent of a Swiss-army knife, each story was performing a whole set of functions for their readers that was, very definitely, more than just messing about in boats with picnic baskets.